Enriching language

Though my father seeded my English, he tended to use language—early-to-middle twentieth century British English—that by today’s tastes was as excruciating as a giraffe in a neck brace. The polishing was done by three geniuses who nursed me—and a few hundred others over the decades—through the complexities of English language and literature in school. All three have passed on, and I have no doubt the angels in heaven are now acing English.

As good an opportunity as any to tell you how grateful I am, Mr. William G White, Fr. James J Donnelly, SJ and Fr. Eugene L Watrin, SJ.

They were consistent in their message: write concise. Eschew multi-syllable words and extraneous words. Use is usually fine, so use use, don’t utilize utilize unnecessarily. Magniloquent penmanship is tantamount to braggadocio, so keep it simple, stupid.

They were lessons well learnt. I have not lost the habit of questioning myself every time I write a word of more than eight characters or three syllables. Anything beyond ten characters or five syllables gives me a feeling of resfeber.

resfeber (ras-fa-ber/ race-fay-ber), Swedish

(n.) the restless race of the traveller’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; a “travel fever” that can manifest as an illness

It is something like the resfeber the protagonist in your sci-fi novel feels when he sets out on that final journey of confrontation, the one from which he may not return, to face an as yet unidentified nemesis of awesome power.

And yet…

There are words, mostly from other languages, that are tempting. Some of them are possibly in the magniloquent class, but I think they deserve a place in the English lexicon. They play phonetic music. They sparkle with soul in the meaning. They make for great erlebnisse.

erlebnisse (ar-‘lEB-nise-e/ ayr-LEEB-nis-eh), German

(n.) the experiences, positive or negative, that we feel most deeply, and through which we truly live; not mere experiences, but Experiences

Rather like the erlebnisse of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, wouldn’t you say? They were Experiences, I am sure you will agree.

You would have trouble translating a lot of these words into single-word English equivalents with the same depth of meaning.

They are words you would use if you knew for sure that your readers would understand. They are words that make for kairos .

kairos (ki-ros/ kye-ross), Greek

(n.) the perfect, delicate, crucial moment; the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune atmosphere for words, action or movement

kairos

kairos

I don’t do romance, but I presume romance authors work for that opportune atmosphere in feelings, don’t they? The kairos when a casual first look brings the certain knowledge, “Here is my soul mate” and unleashes a tale of passion, intrigue and betral. Or something like that, I presume. When I said I don’t do romance, I meant write and read.

Going back to words that are seductive, some of them have a certain mystique about them, a certain serein.

serein (se-ren) French

(n.) the fine, light rain that falls from a clear sky at sunset or in the early hours of night; evening serenity

serein

serein

I am fascinated by the imagery of that seeming oxymoron there, the rain from a clear sky. Doesn’t it make you think of that mermaid in your YA book, sighing on a rock in a calm sea, the serein doing nothing to ease her desperate wish to become human just for once?

I am all for the natural evolution of language, when old words like aerodrome and handmaid become passé and new words with impact like bookaholic—of course!—and selfie—rather in-your-face nowadays, I admit, yet expressive—enter the lexicon.

And almost surely, English has been the most evolutionary language of all. Keeping that process up needs the infusion of fresh blood, fresh words with not only impact, but with soul. Words that make you pause and think. Words that are numinous.

numinous (nu-mi-nus), Latin

(adj.) describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted—the powerful, personal feeling of being overwhelmed and inspired

Would you say numinous describes the feelings of the protagonist in your work of horror when after almost two decades of life, she finds out she is not quite merely human?

All authors know the right word in the right place can be a gem that can have more impact than a whole paragraph of groping effort. All of us strive to enrich our writing with such gems, to use words that serve as asterismos.

asterismos (as-ter-iz-mOs) English, originally Greek

(n.)”marking with stars”; a word that gives weight or draws attention to the words that follow; related to asterism, a constellation or a starlike fixture of light

Consider this opening sentence from the Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

Catamite? My initial reaction to this asterismos was that it referred to some kind of physical disease. Something to do with mites, maybe, and with the age of the protagonist.

I was delightfully wrong. I am glad I looked that word up. It had something to do with the protagonist’s age, all right. In a nasty way I just hadn’t imagined.

And finally, I love the Japanese word kintsukoroi. Phonetically, it is a faintly rough word, almost guttural, suggestive of negative passion when you pronounce it the Japanese way, with a bit of emphasis on the r.

And yet, it is a wonderful word with meaning. Full of soul.

kintsukuroi (kin-tsU-kU-roi) Japanese

(n.) (v.phr.) “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken

kintsukuroi

kintsukuroi

I’ll leave you to figure out if and how you want to use that word in your books.

Words like the ones discussed in this post give the author a sense of discovery, of joy in a rapidly digitizing world that if left to its ways, would flood dictionaries with soulless words derived from acronyms of other words, a new language all of its ugly own.

Got any words you feel deserve a regular place in author’s writing? Let us know in the comments, please.

Note: All the words discussed and their definitions here are derived from the site other-wordly.tumbler.com.

Like these words? I have some more for you right here.

Enriching language

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 4 min
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